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#STEMStories: Khanyisile, Researcher, South Africa

Name: Khanyisile Kgoadi
Role/Occupation: Researcher at the Immunology Division
Country: South Africa

Khanyisile Kgoadi is a researcher in the Division of Immunology, Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM) at the University of Cape Town. She investigates neuro-immunological mechanisms associated with detrimental effects of central nervous system tuberculosis (CNS-TB); which is the deadliest form of tuberculosis mainly affecting children and immune-compromised adults such as those infected with HIV/AIDS.

Kgoadi grew up in Soweto, a famous township in South Africa. Her country has the highest HIV epidemic in the world and she witnessed the indignity and health deterioration experienced by people infected and affected by the disease, she was deeply moved by their plight felt and decided to help improve their health and life expectancy. She pursued studies in biological sciences and completed a BSc in Biochemistry and Human Physiology at the University of Johannesburg, followed by a BSc (Honours) and MSc in Biochemistry at the University of Pretoria, where I conducted research that found potential metabolic biomarkers associated with HIV/AIDS and antiretroviral treatment (HAART). Kgoadi’s PhD research focuses on tuberculosis as those infected by HIV have a high rate of TB co-infection and mostly die from this opportunistic infection and she wishes to tackle both the diseases simultaneously. The far reaching effects of her work motivates her, “knowing that I am working towards contributing to finding health solutions to global health problems that will impact and improve people’s lives on a large scale keeps me excited about my job.” Her biggest dream is to run her own HIV-TB coinfection laboratory as a principal investigator within the next ten years.

Kgoadi’s hard work and determination have always paid off and her efforts have been earmarked by professional milestones. Milestones which range from meeting and engaging with Timothy Ray Brown, “the Berlin Patient – first person to be cured of HIV” to being elected as an executive board member of South African Immunology Society (SAIS) and then receiving the 2015 South African Women in Science award (TATA Doctoral fellowship) and the 2016 Margaret McNamara Education Grant for empowering children and women through education and the list just goes on and on. However for Kgoadi, her biggest career milestone thus far has been “during my HIV/AIDS research, we were fortunate to discover potential biomarkers for HIV/AIDS that could be used for disease prognosis, this still stands as my eureka! moment.”

Despite all that she has been doing Kgoadi manages to maintain a fair work-life balance which she attributes to time management; “when research life gets too hectic... I remind myself that I must take care of my physical well-being to keep fit, nurture my mental health and feed my spiritual being. You cannot pour from an empty/broken glass because both work and personal life are important.”

Although she cannot describe her experience as a woman in the STEM space as having been smooth sailing due to the numerous obstacles, she still feels that it has been largely positive and rewarding, “I have been fortunate enough to be in the care of supervisors/mentors... that have been supportive of my career growth... having supervisors that not only trained me but also believed in me and trusted me has served as a huge boost to my self-confidence as a scientist.” She understands that many other women in STEM have not been as fortunate as her and have been demoralised, discouraged and denied opportunities. Kgoadi thus understands the value of what she represents, “it makes me proud to be a representation of #BlackExcellence as a woman scientist that is thriving in the early stages of her career, someone young African girls can familiarise with and be empowered.” Her advice to young girls is to “believe in yourself, surround yourself with positive people and take advantage of opportunities that support your dreams... the STEM field is always evolving thus making it fun and exciting. Hard work always pays off!” She foresees great things for STEM in Africa such as “women representation increasing and with them [women] assuming more influential and executive roles that will further transform the African continent into a pioneer of research in the STEM field... Through collaborations with other continents, Africa is in a process of taking the lead in solving problems that mostly affect Africa using the STEM field.”

Kgoadi aims to change the world and help as many people as possible through her research, delve further into the interview below and allow this Geeky Girl's vision to change your day, to brighten your outlook.

1. Describe what your work entails.

I am conducting my research in the Division of Immunology, Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM) at the University of Cape Town. I am investigating neuro-immunological mechanisms associated with detrimental effects of central nervous system tuberculosis (CNS-TB). CNS-TB is a severe and deadliest form of tuberculosis that can manifest as TB meningitis and it affects mostly children and immune-compromised adults such as those infected with HIV/AIDS. CNS-TB results in death and disabilities because it still faces challenges with diagnosis and treatment. I am mainly interested in understanding the interaction of dendritic cells and T cells, which are immune cells involved in the clearance of bacterial pathogens. This is in an effort to discover novel therapeutic interventions to treat TB meningitis.

2. Describe your STEM journey.

I grew up in Soweto, a famous township in South Africa. South Africa has the highest HIV epidemic in the world and witnessed the indignity and health deterioration experienced by people infected and affected by the disease, I felt compassionate and decided to help improve their health and life expectancy. I wanted to become a medical doctor by applying for an MBBCh degree in a quest to find a cure for HIV/AIDS because I was not exposed to the STEM field in high school. Only at university level when I was introduced to HIV/AIDS research did I find out about the STEM field because it presented me with an opportunity to achieve my dream. I pursued studies in biological sciences; a BSc in Biochemistry and Human Physiology at the University of Johannesburg, a BSc (Hons) & MSc in Biochemistry at the University of Pretoria, where I conducted research that discovered potential metabolic biomarkers associated with HIV/AIDS and antiretroviral treatment (HAART). HIV-infected individuals have a high rate of TB co-infection, and they mostly die from this opportunistic infection. This is why my PhD research is in tuberculosis so that I can tackle both the diseases simultaneously. My STEM journey has been amazing thus far because not only has it yielded rewards for me but I also shared it with others and inspired and assisted them in joining, staying and flourishing in the STEM field. My STEM journey is ongoing and in 10 years I plan to run my own HIV-TB coinfection laboratory as a principal investigator.

3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?

Knowing that I am working towards contributing to finding health solutions to global health problems that will impact and improve people’s lives on a large scale keeps me excited about my job. Science is a team sport, working with colleagues and collaborators paves the way for new ideas and solutions that lead to the success of the job. Getting out of bed in the morning is always a mission for me because I am not a morning person, however being an ambitious hard worker who is driven to achieve her goals of helping other people, keeps me motivated.

4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the STEM space?

It has not been smooth sailing because I had to overcome many obstacles. However, I can honestly say my experience as a woman scientist in STEM space has been good and rewarding thus far. I have been fortunate enough to be in the care of supervisors/mentors and some staff members that have been supportive of my career growth. I say fortunate because sadly I know and hear of other women scientists
that have been demoralised, discouraged and denied opportunities by their supervisors. Having supervisors that not only trained me but also believed in me and trusted me has served as a huge boost to my self-confidence as a scientist. I am still learning and their support encourages me to do my best and reach for the highest accolades. The support system I have been receiving as a female scientist has extended beyond my family, friends, university , national organizations (NRF and SAMRC scholarships), government (DST award) to an international scale. God continues to abundantly bless my career as a woman scientist, I want these blessings to be extended to my fellow women scientist because they need it. It makes me proud to be a representation of #BlackExcellence as a woman scientist that is thriving in the early stages of her career, someone young African girls can familiarise with and be empowered. Advancing my postgraduate studies has come at a cost to my family, they are having to wait longer for overdue BLACK TAX returns. I am from a disadvantaged background and had to work part-time jobs to try escape financial stress. The STEM space granted me the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant for undergraduate and honours students. I love teaching because I enjoy sharing the knowledge and skills that I acquire. Tutoring biological sciences and physics, doing practical demonstrations and marking of tests/reports offered me a platform to engage one on one with hundreds of young STEM women and men that I was able to teach, guide, motivate, inspire and mentor. I do not think it is fair that women scientists get undermined a lot and challenged more to prove themselves than men scientists.

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field?

It is important to identify what you love and the research field/topic you are passionate about because when challenges arise, these will serve as motivation for you not to give up. You need to believe in yourself, surround yourself with positive people and take advantage of opportunities that support your dreams. As an education and science advocate, I believe education is the key to success and young people should utilize both for career growth. Also learn to make investments and necessary sacrifices in order to have an excelling career in the STEM field. To achieve your dream, you will have to put in the hard work, commitment, dedication and be responsible. You must remember that the STEM field is always evolving thus making it fun and exciting. Hard work always pays off!

6. As a STEM woman in Africa, how do you foresee the growth and progress of STEM in the continent? Is Africa “a land of opportunity”?

The STEM field is growing in Africa and I foresee women representation increasing and with them assuming more influential and executive roles that will further transform the African continent into a pioneer of research in the STEM field. African countries are continuously expanding and improving their research institutions. These on-going efforts have lead to high quality research output that is shaping the global scientific communities. Through collaborations with other continents, Africa is in a process of taking the lead in solving problems that mostly affect Africa using the STEM field.

7. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?

I was so humbled and happy when I met and engaged with Timothy Ray Brown, “the Berlin Patient – first person to be cured of HIV” in 2017 at the 6th South African Immunology Society (SAIS) conference. And to top it up, not only did I win a prize at the conference for best poster presentation, in April 2018, I got elected as an executive board member of SAIS. During my HIV/AIDS research, we were fortunate to discover potential biomarkers for HIV/AIDS that could be used for disease prognosis, this still stands as my eureka! moment. Recognition of my efforts has always earmarked my milestone moments. I have been fortunate to be awarded the 2015 South African Women in Science award (TATA Doctoral fellowship) and the 2016 Margaret McNamara Education Grant for empowering children and women through education. It was overwhelming, amazing and an epic experience to have the 2017 President of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) and more than 30 000 attendees of the Neuroscience 2017 meeting applaud us, the SfN Trainee Professional Development award winners (about 200 winners) after we were asked to stand. That was a PRICELESS experience at a world stage! In June this year I was selected as one of the 2018 Mail and Guardian Top 200 Young South African, I am super honoured and grateful to make this list of phenomenal young people. I consider these to be my key milestones and hopefully the ultimate one would be to establish a laboratory facility dedicated to eliminating HIV and TB in our lifetime.

8. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

Time management is crucial for work-life balance. I am mostly cooked up in the lab, however I still make time to go out and engage in activities I love and enjoy outside academia. I find spending time with family and friends is very rejuvenating and actually feeds positively to my work. When research life gets too hectic and I barely have time to eat/rest/sleep, I remind myself that I must take care of my physical well-being to keep fit, nurture my mental health and feed my spiritual being. You cannot pour from an empty/broken glass because both work and personal life are important.

9. Who is your role model and who inspires you?

In the past I used to limit a role model to someone I looked up to in the STEM field based on their accomplishments, but then I’ve since realised that I am actually inspired by several qualities such as high esteemed and ethical scientist, actively advocating for science and involved in public engagement. Anyone who embodies these qualities is my role model. I am more than my work, so my parents are my role models and inspiring individuals outside the STEM field.

10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found?

LinkedIn: Khanyisile Kgoadi 
Twitter: @kaystarz

Khanyisile Kgoadi interviewed by Dhruti Dheda

Dhruti Dheda is a Chemical Engineer with a strong interest in media and communication. She is the editor of the Engineers without Borders South Africa Newsletter and the Community Manager – South Africa and Regional Outreach for Geeky Girl Reality. If you wish to collaborate or network, contact her at dhruti@geekyreality.com or find her on twitter @dhrutidd